Local laws known as nuisance ordinances have been popping up in hundreds of towns and cities across the country, marketed as a way to deter criminal activity by fining landlords whose properties are frequented by the police. In reality, they punish victims of domestic violence by forcing them to choose between their personal safety and the risk of homelessness.
When nuisance ordinances are in place, the landlord of a rental property receives a notification after police are called to their property as little as three times, informing the owner to either pay a hefty fine or evict the tenant. In domestic violence scenarios, this often means pushing those who are victims of abuse onto the streets.
NPR chronicled the experience of a woman in Norristown, Pennsylvania whose boyfriend used the nuisance ordinance as a way of terrorizing and controlling her. Knowing she would be evicted if the police were called to her property again, he essentially moved in and continued to beat her. One night he slit her neck open with a broken ash tray.
Desperate not to be evicted, she crawled out of her house in hopes that someone would call the police to a spot on the public street, but the police responded to her home. After being airlifted to a hospital, she returned home several days later to a letter from her landlord saying that if he didn’t evict her, the town would fine him $1,000 a day. While Norristown eventually repealed this law, similar ones have emerged in Iowa, New York, Arizona, Wisconsin and elsewhere.
The ACLU has found that nuisance ordinances are disproportionately enforced in communities of color and against individuals with mental disabilities. A study on the effect of Milwaukee’s nuisance ordinance found that tenants in majority black communities were three times more likely to be cited under the nuisance ordinance than renters in majority white communities.
“As police practices come under scrutiny nationwide, the prevalence of these laws raises serious questions about police bias against survivors of domestic violence, most of whom are women,” wrote Sandra Park, senior attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “When are people considered victims of crime, deserving of help, and when are they seen as nuisances? Shouldn’t people be able to exercise their First Amendment right to seek police assistance without regard to their gender, race, income, or status as tenants?”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen recently introduced a bill that builds on the Violence Against Women Act, and would bar victims of domestic and sexual violence from being evicted or denied access to housing simply because of the crimes perpetrated against them. It has yet to be brought up for a vote.
Domestic violence victims make up more than 10 percent of all evictions. It is the third leading cause of homelessness in America. As many as 50 percent of homeless women and children are fleeing abusive households; 92 percent of women experiencing homelessness have been victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, when advocates and survivors push issues facing abuse victims into the forefront of national conversation. Every minute in the United States, 20 people experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner. More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will be the victim of intimate partner violence in their lifetime.